The inner and outer conditions for tranquility
Updated: Nov 5, 2019
Fostering tranquility and samadhi requires creating suitable conditions, both external and internal. Effort in meditation, commitment and even consistency will not always be enough to calm down the overactive, anxious mind. The necessary conditions for achieving shamatha—which produces a profound state of samadhi—have long been known and discussed in the Buddhist tradition. Adapting these to the life of a person living a normal life in modern society is important for improving one’s mental health, calming one’s mind and allowing it to begin to settle in its natural state of clarity and tranquil cognizance.
Ethics. The foundation of mental well-being is leading an ethically wholesome life. Ethics is the one value all spiritual traditions share, and the importance of being a good person is recognized by all psychologically healthy people. In regards to meditation and calming the mind on the way to achieving states of profound mental health and samadhi, nothing can be more distracting than the agitation that arises from unethical behavior. Whether it is nervous energy, guilt, depression or fear, anxiety and anger, our minds naturally react poorly to evil deeds. There are no serene criminals with the possible exception of psychopaths. Thieves and adulterers fear being caught and live off the adrenaline highs that their hurtful adventures bring. Those who enact violence on other are suffused with anger and depression. Alcohol, distracting entertainment, and a return again and again to mind numbing sins finally destroy any chance of revealing the unobscured, tranquil mind. On the other hand, those who make the best effort they can to live wholesome lives and who discipline their conduct to stay within reasonable ethical boundaries already experience a degree of serenity that is impossible for the immoral to find. Nobody I know has lived a blameless life. I certainly haven’t. Good ethics is a discipline, like meditation. Improvements come with practice.
A suitable environment. One should meditate and if at all possible live in an environment that supports serenity. Living in nature, even in a small corner of it, is far superior for the purposes of samadhi and mental health than living in a city. People love cities precisely for the distractions, the things to do—the restaurants, the cinema, the bars and concert halls. The artificial excitement of all that distraction keeps the mind hyped up and agitated. There’s nothing wrong with an occasional movie or restaurant meal but constant over-stimulation is simply counterproductive. That said, not everyone can live in a serene place, so what do you do? At the moment I live in downtown Budapest where the noise of the city easily intrudes upon my peace of mind. I find the solution is to first meditate in a suitable environment—very early in the morning when no one else is up and with a group of Zen practitioners who meditate in a peaceful, large and empty apartment in the evenings. Second, I keep my activities in the city to a minimum, work from home when I can and when I am in the city I maintain a light awareness of the object of my meditation, usually the breath. My wife and I hike in nature regularly and we are making long-term plans to move to a forested area. If your environment isn’t ideal, mitigate that as much as you can. It’s surprising how much serenity can be found even in a city when one makes the effort.
Few desires. Most people are constantly chasing after something they don’t have. Creating and maintaining unfulfilled desires keeps the economy growing but it also blows mental health and tranquility out of the water. Unless you are facing abject poverty, consider the possibility that you don’t need to chase after anything anymore. Unless something essential is missing, you don’t need anything you don’t have. You don’t need a new car, a larger house, a prettier girlfriend, a promotion, a new summer wardrobe—nothing. Zero. If the thought of having no or very few desires produces anxiety and protests from your mind, then notice just how much you rely on the dopamine rush of external rewards to obscure the fact that you lack mental stability. Now think about how calming and pleasant it would be to crave nothing, and when craving does arise to let it come and go, refusing to let your mind attach itself to the craving and build it up through obsessive rumination.
Contentment. This is the flip-side of having few desires. Contentment can be cultivated. An excellent way to enlarge your sense of contentment is to practice gratitude. Most likely you could be far, far worse off than you are. Viktor Frankl, who wrote Man’s Search for Meaning, found in his experience as a concentration camp inmate during the Holocaust that a meaningful, sufficient life could be carved out of even the worst possible conditions. Desperation could be kept at bay. None of us live under those kinds of extreme conditions. Isn’t it absurd that so many of us aren’t deeply grateful for what we have and always grasp after more and more? The constant pursuit of hedonic pleasures is a treadmill that leads nowhere except to exhaustion. Other practices that can enhance contentment are gradually organizing your environment with the aim of achieving a form of minimalism that is suitable for you, and practicing frugality. This is as true for people who are very well off financially as for those who aren’t.
Few activities and concerns. Some people load their lives up with more and more activities until there isn’t much time left over for meditation and contemplation, much less space to develop tranquility. The first thing to do is to remove the extraneous activities from one’s life, starting with the busy work and distractions. This means surfing the internet, watching TV, compulsive house and yard work and so on. Ask yourself what is really necessary for you to do in your life and what is extra. You may want to keep that one volunteer job, but do you really also need another? Do you absolutely need to watch the game every Sunday, or go to clubs on Friday night? Also ask yourself what activities that are conducive to tranquility can replace those that are not. Could long distance running in solitude through natural areas take the place of time spent on the web, watching shows and being on social media? Can you substitute the planned holiday to Disneyland with one to a national park? Calming down our minds means simplifying our lives to the extent that we can. Almost all of us have not only too much stuff and too many concerns and obsessions, but too much make-work and extraneous, useless activity.
Reducing obsessive compulsive thinking. Our minds are typically uncontrollably active, drowning us in thoughts, feelings, and emotions. It’s as if we are forced to stand under a torrential waterfall, unable to escape. Most of us cannot turn this torrent off, even for a minute. Yet this isn’t the essential nature of the mind. The nature of the mind is clear, luminous, non-conceptual. The mind shines, so to speak, in its essential awareness of itself, its awareness of being aware. Meditation can slow or cut off the rush of mental activity, and carefully training in meditation in the long term can lead to the virtual cessation of unwanted, unintended thoughts, feelings and emotions. People are often afraid of their own minds. The thought of being in a sensory deprivation chamber—without light or sound, suspended in lukewarm water, unable to move—can really make some people feel uncomfortable. What’s scary is the risk that the mind might throw up terrifying images or feelings, that the usually irritating but relatively harmless torrent of mental activity will suddenly become malicious—that the mind will turn on itself and that the person won’t be able to distract, and thereby protect, herself through some kind of activity in the world, whether reading or watching TV or talking with someone. Left to its own devices, we fear, the mind become dangerous and unpredictable. Yet no one has anything to fear from the essential nature of the mind. The bliss that arises from having a direct experience of the essential mind, if one can access it, makes the prospect of spending time in a sensory deprivation chamber attractive. Calm your mind through shamatha meditation training, being aware that progress is likely to be slow. If meditation is regular, however, practiced daily as much as possible, progress can be cumulative. Moreover, in between meditation sessions you can maintain a peripheral awareness of the object of meditation—whether it’s the breath, the space of the mind, a Buddha image or some other object. In our daily activities, when we are walking down the street or even writing, maintaining such an awareness is a helpful aid to controlling the flow of mental chatter. During breaks from work or other activities, it is often possible to find a few minutes to return to meditation, thereby renewing the mind’s focus on the practice and signaling it to slow down.
Creating the absolutely ideal conditions for samadhi is difficult in this modern world but small steps towards simplifying one’s life and environment can eventually lead to big changes. Short of leaving it all behind for a permanent retreat, we can employ well thought out strategies to simulate these conditions to the greatest extent possible while continuing to lead relatively active lives.